Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Flying With a Cat

I like to consider myself a fairly experienced traveler as I’ve been traveling fairly frequently for the past 6 years. As a result, not that many things strike me as unusual when it comes to traveling.

My last trip was across the country from Eugene to Boston by way of San Francisco (EUG->SFO->BOS). My wife and I relocated with our cat, Satsuma to the Boston area. Neither of us had traveled with a cat by plane before, but we knew that our cat, Satsuma, does not like traveling in cars. She’s not one of those cats that sits quietly during a car ride, but rather prefers to claw at her carrier until all of her nails are shattered while howling incessantly for the duration of the trip. We knew we were in for a treat.

Given Satsuma’s history with car travel, we decided to look into what could be done to try to calm her down and make her as comfortable as possible for what would be over 9 hours of travel by car and plane. When we went to her vet in Eugene, they told us that there was no “magic bullet” that would work for all cats, but there were several things that we could try in order to calm her down for the trip:

1. Cover her carrier with a towel to block out overwhelming visual and auditory stimuli.
2. Get her used to being in the carrier by taking her on short car trips.
3. Spray her carrier with a synthetic feline pheromone.
4. Sedate her with a cat sedative.

We did all of these things with lackluster results. Since I realize that these may be entertaining to someone that didn’t actually live through them, I will share them with you.

The morning started at 2:00 am when our alarm went off to let me know that it was time to administer the sedative. The funny thing about this pill based sedative is that it takes 2 hours to kick in, and if it isn’t active at the time you want the cat to be calm, kitty over-ride takes over and the sedative won’t work. So, at 2:00 am I rolled off the air mattress to fetch two quarter tablets of the sedative in order to force feed them to the cat.

Of course, cats don’t like to be forced into doing anything, let alone being woken up in the middle of the night in order to choke something down that doesn’t taste like anything remotely resembling a treat. I thought that I did a good job with this until, at 3:30 am when we got up to get ready to to leave for the airport, we discovered that I had only succeeded in feeding the cat one of the tablet fragments. This was both frustrating and disappointing because now there was a good chance that the cat would not be sufficiently sedated. As it turns out, she wasn’t.

We proceeded to pack up the remaining belongings into our rental car, and Satsuma proceeded to get very anxious about the whole process. Over the proceeding month, she had seen all of the things that she had become used to be packed into boxes and carted away. The things that did stick around a little longer she watched being sold at a garage sale. Somehow, during all of this, we were unable to convince here that we weren’t going to leave her someplace or do something terrible to her. Unfortunately, this message never got through to her.

We loaded her up into her carrier that he had recently sprayed with synthetic feline pheromone and covered her with a towel. The thing with cats is that they have this nocturnal hunting instinct about them, and some of them are most active at night. The nocturnally active cats purrfur (sorry, I had to get one cat pun in here) to sleep all day while trying to keep their owners from getting a good night’s sleep at night. Our cat definitely belongs in the nocturnally active category.

Now that I think about it, covering the cage with a towel was a terrible idea. We should have carted around a sun lamp so that she would have thought it was day time, and time for a nap.

On the way to the airport we had to gas up the rental car before returning it, so we looked for one that was open. We passed a couple gas stations that were closed, but we finally found one that was open 24 hours. Of course, it was the gas station that I try to avoid due to dangerous things that seem to happen when I visit there. I’ve witnessed shoplifting and an outburst by a soldier that had just returned from Iraq. He reacted poorly to the high price of gas and vowed to return to the gas station and shoot everyone there. At that point I decided to avoid that gas station in the future if it was at all avoidable.

Unfortunately, on that particular morning, it was unavoidable. Fortunately, nothing scary occurred that morning. By the time we pulled into the gas station, Satsuma had emptied the contents of her bladder onto the pad that we had in her carrier, so we proceeded to change the pad in the parking lot of the gas station. This is when I remembered one of the earlier trial runs when I took Satsuma to the airport and discovered that when she gets really nervous, she loses control of her bodily functions. By the time we finished up at the gas station, it was about 4:30 am.

I’d like to say that check in went smoothly, but it didn’t. I had packed about 6 pounds too much stuff in my suitcase, so I had to do some shuffling at the ticket counter. We had 5 suitcases, 3 carry on bags and a cat. The last thing you want to do is to be shuffling items around at the ticket counter, and I always hate it when people do that at the airport. That morning, it was my turn to do it. I hereby apologize to everyone who was behind me in line that day and to the poor ticket agent, who did a great job in humoring/putting up with us.

Once the bags were sorted, we got through security without any problems. Satsuma would make some noise every now and then, but she was tolerating things fairly well considering the circumstances. Nothing much of note happened until after we boarded the plane.

Once on board, Satsuma started howling like she normally does while traveling by car. Fortunately the sound of the airplane engines soon drowned out her howls. Shortly after taking of, she pooped. Normally cat poop smells pretty bad, but add that her stomach had probably been in knots due to the move and that she was an anxious traveler and this is something altogether different. I can’t really describe the smell and do it justice except to say that it was right on the edge of being ungodly. I apologize to everyone who was on that flight that morning.

There wasn’t a thing that I could do until the seat belt sign was turned off, so my wife and I devised our game plan. When the seat belt sign went off, I’d get up, obtain the proper supplies from the overhead bin, take the cat to the lavatory, dispose of the offending object(s), change her pad and then come back. This is, more or less, how things transpired. I was fortunate that no one else also needed to use the lavatory so I got right in. I could only imagine the reactions of the people around me had I needed to stand in the aisle and wait my turn.

When I got in, I sat the carrier on the toilet lid and slowly opened the carrier in order to survey the damage. There was some poop in there, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it smelled. After carefully removing Satsuma and setting her down on the thankfully dry floor I went about changing the pad. Before this was complete, she tried to jump back into the carrier. When I removed her, she tried jumping in again. As it turns out, the floor of an airplane lavatory is not the most comfortable place for a cat. I finally got things taken care of, put Satsuma back in the carrier and returned to my seat.

The rest of the flight consisted of Satsuma thrashing about the carrier while we tried to calm her down. It was kind of like in movies when there's some giant, unseen beast within a large wooden crate only much smaller. You knew something was going on, but you didn't quite know what it was. The rest of the trip was more of the same, so I’ll spare you the repetition.

In the end, we did make it to Boston without too many problems, but it was a very long day. If you can avoid traveling with a cat that loathes travel, I’d advise avoiding it. Satsuma is currently doing much better in her new home and enjoys sleeping and watching the birds from one of the many windows she now has access to.

If you have any interesting pet travel stories, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below.

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  1. This is a great story! As a fellow pet owner, I really feel for you and your wife and I'm glad Satsuma is has recovered from her ordeal!

  2. Great story and please do share with others at - it is why the community is there, as we can all learn from each other!

  3. I'm sure you said you'll never do that again, but if you have to give her pills again try "pill pockets" from your pet store. the cat ones are little cat treats that are hollow. try it without pills to make sure, then go for it. my cat actually likes them.

  4. Hey Graham... sounds like you had loads of fun! I can't even imagine traveling with my psycho cat Magic. You are very brave. I'm glad you made it through check in at EUG with Satsuma (cool name) without too much trouble. We'll miss you! --Cathryn

  5. A little late, but check this out:

  6. Pill pockets, that's a new one on me, but since you've mentioned it I've seen them in a store already. I'm hoping to never have to have such a move again.

    It was an ordeal, but I'm glad that we did it.

    Tom: Petplane? That sounds like a plot from a really bad movie. The sequel could be Petplane Cemetery, because in the first movie the plane would go down.

  7. As a cat rancher of four, I laughed quite a bit reading this post!

  8. So you guys in the US can travel with animals onboaard? Amazing! I have been a flight attendant for 7 years and NO airline I have flown with has allowed it. I had no idea!

  9. Have girlkittycrew - 2 bengal[vocal anyone] & we car-ride lots for travel with them, say "it's tolerable", but soon relocating from miami to panama by plane , will be our 1st, i appreciate your story Graham, gives me some good insight. Thanks 4 sharing & glad Satsuma is doing great in her new home she is beautiful b.t.w.

  10. Hi Graham...I didn't know about your cat travels via airplane when you were visiting Oklahoma. We did not nearly have the harrowing tale of transporting Bibi from PA to OK - she did surprising well. But I am glad I didn't read this before our move. Hope Satsuma is feeling better in her newer new home.